One of the spicier journalistic scandals of 2005 occurred when USA Today revealed that President Bush's secretary of education had paid $240,000 to prominent TV journalist Armstrong Williams.
In return for the money, Williams agreed to promote the president's No Child Left Behind policy on his TV show. After the news broke, journalists discredited Williams and condemned Education Secretary Rod Paige for spending tax dollars to buy good news.
The U.S. Department of Justice investigated, and in October 2006, Williams agreed to pay $34,000 in fines—although he admitted no wrongdoing.
Now, it appears that a smaller instance of this questionable practice occurred at Portland Public Schools. WW has learned that the school district agreed to pay $4,000 to a local writer to pen good-news articles and place them in regional and national publications.
WW learned of the arrangement while reviewing old meeting agendas of the Portland School Board. A small notation in the back of an April 2006 agenda outlines the terms of the contract this way: "Contractor will write and research up to two news articles per month for Communications Department, and assist in placement of articles in regional and national media and trade publications." The contract ran from April to July 2006.
The writer is Marnie McPhee, a longtime freelancer in Portland who's written for a number of publications in town and for years edited one on organic gardening. (McPhee was WW's circulation manager more than 25 years ago. She also wrote freelance pieces for this newspaper.) In the past, McPhee has worked on a number of projects for the school district, from updating the contents of its website to writing grant applications. As of December, School Board records show she had earned $32,400 from the district for her work.
The idea of writing stories and placing them with publications came from McPhee, who says she was impressed with the work of Nancy Bond, a resource conservation specialist with the district.
"It was just obvious that there were many, many positive stories coming from the work [Bond] was doing," McPhee says. "They decided to hire me because they were very short-staffed."
McPhee wrote three stories about the school district for $4,000. Two of them, "Diverted School Food Feeds the Hungry" (about the district's program to donate leftovers) and "A Perfect Learning Environment Inside and Out" (about the new Rosa Parks Elementary School in North Portland), were published in In Business, a Pennsylvania-based magazine focused on sustainability, with a circulation of 2,000. The magazine, which charges $33 for an annual subscription of six issues, described McPhee as a "freelance writer."
A third article about Sellwood Middle School ran in the Oregon Green Schools newsletter, which is put together by a volunteer organization and has a circulation of 350.
Nora Goldstein, the editor at In Business, says McPhee made clear to her that she was being paid by Portland Public Schools, and she did not pay McPhee any additional money. "We ran them as journalistic stories," Goldstein says.
Goldstein declined to answer additional questions.
Journalistic ethics experts disagree over the propriety of what happened.
Tom Bivins, a media ethics professor at the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication, says because McPhee was identified as a "freelance writer" he has no concerns about her working on behalf of the school district.
But Bob Steele, an ethics expert at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalism in St. Petersburg, Fla., criticized the deal.
"If the freelancer was being paid by the school district to write something for the school district, then that's not independent journalism," Steele says. "And for the publication to either believe or suggest that it's independent journalism is clearly problematic.... The readers don't know that this freelancer was being paid by the school district, and that clearly erodes any sense of independence.
The freelancer should be exceptionally careful about working both sides of the street."
Given that McPhee revealed her relationship to the publishers, her role in this matter seems far less troubling than the role of the publications that agreed to use her work and not tell readers. Most problematic, however, is the role of the school district. A number of observers questioned the judgment of spending $4,000 on the effort. Currently, a number of schools in the Portland district are facing cuts to their teaching staff.
WW contacted four other public agencies to ask if they'd ever paid a writer to pen and place news stories for them. None had.
"To use money that could go directly to the classroom to promote the district is not the best use of taxpayer money," says Superintendent Barbara Rommel of the David Douglas School District in east Portland.
A representative of Multnomah County, no stranger to critical news, also disavowed the practice. "There are lots of ways of getting a message out," says Shawn Cunningham, a public information officer for the county. "I've never heard of anyone in the county doing that."
Jay Remy, director of communications for Salem-Keizer Public Schools, had a similar take.
"I just never even thought of it," Remy says. "I don't have any need to do it; it's not something I'd even given any thought to."
Superintendent Vicki Phillips' response through a spokeswoman: "It is not unusual for departments in PPS to use contract services. We have proper processes in place for these things, and our contract audit is good. I do not oversee every contract; I give people their budgets...and they operate following rules and procedures."
All four candidates in the two contested races of the May 15 School Board election offered measured responses to questions about the contract, saying they would want to review the particulars before reaching a conclusion. Board members David Wynde and Doug Morgan, the two incumbents facing challengers, both had the chance to review the contract last year as part of their board duties.
Their two challengers went furthest in questioning the employment of outside contractors to perform district public relations work.
"Our resources are way too limited," says Ruth Adkins, a challenger to Morgan in Zone 1. "It seems to me we don't need to be hiring out to do PR."
From 2001 to 2007, the district's communications staff grew from six to 11 people.
Michele Schultz, who's challenging Wynde in Zone 2, echoed Adkins' concern.
"If the goal is to the get the word out, there are clearly ways to do that without writing a contract and expending district funds," says Schultz. "Schools are in the business of providing education, not news."
Morgan says the results of the agreement may need review. "To the extent that it's true, it needs to be examined," says Morgan.
Schultz's opponent, incumbent David Wynde, also did not challenge the contract in April. Now he says he needs more details before offering a judgment about it.
"It's a challenge to get information out there," says Wynde. "In this day and age, you have to be fairly flexible and creative in the ways you do that."
One footnote: Before becoming education secretary for Bush, Paige was on the Houston Independent School Board with Cathy Mincberg, who helped him get hired as Houston's superintendent in 1994. It was Paige's performance there that landed him the job in Washington in 2001.
Mincberg became chief operating officer at PPS in September 2005, and it was her office that oversaw the communications department when it agreed to the contract with McPhee.